Apathy is the real winner in vote for statehood

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello, right, and Congresswoman Jennifer Gonzalez celebrate the referendum results.
Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello, right, and Congresswoman Jennifer Gonzalez celebrate the referendum results. AP

Can’t hear the clamor from the U.S. Capitol to make Puerto Rico the 51st state? Neither can we. The desire for statehood was a big winner in the commonwealth’s referendum held last weekend. However, only 23 percent of those eligible bothered to cast a vote. So the clamor from the island wasn’t deafening, either.

Still, Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s governor, announced that an overwhelming majority of voters wanted to turn the financially bankrupt island into the 51st state of the union.

He said it was a call to “end the colonial relationship with the United States,” and that it is a “clear and strong message” for the world and the U.S. Congress, which would have to approve the move.

However, Rosselló and statehood supporters don’t have it easy — and they shouldn’t.

First, Sunday’s referendum is not binding. It was more an exercise of electoral temperature-taking than a mandate to convert the island into an American state.

Second, the referendum was more a triumph of electoral apathy than of statehood. Only 23 percent of the voters went to the polls for such a significant question.

Carlos Vargas Ramos, of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter University in New York, said attendance at the referendum was the lowest in Puerto Rico since 1967. Even supporters of the island becoming a U.S. state came out to vote in lower numbers than in previous plebiscites.

Regardless, Rosselló said that his government will move ahead with the goal of making the island a state of the Union, and announced that it will create a commission for the purpose of Congress validating the election result.

It would be “highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world and not to respond to the legitimate right of self-determination exercised today” in Puerto Rico, the governor said.

He’s overselling it.

There’s been no outcry in the Capitol to bring an island loaded with debt into the fold. Why should there be? The Trump administration is in isolationist mode. And if there were more of a chance that the residents of the new 51st state were staunch Republicans, the Capitol conversation might have a chance of getting started.

Puerto Rico remains an economic mess. The recession has lasted for a decade and has caused almost half a million Puerto Ricans to emigrate to the continental United States. Many have settled in Orlando and Miami.

The island’s debt per capita is greater than that of any U.S. state. At the same time, the elimination of federal tax incentives has aggravated the economic difficulties.

Puerto Rico does not have to pay federal income tax, but it does have to pay Social Security, Medicare, and local taxes. The island receives federal funding below that received by the states.

The commonwealth model may have worked well for decades, but it has also created a culture of dependence on the United States that has slowed its economic development beyond tourism.

Statehood should not be the equivalent of throwing a drowning swimmer a lifesaver. Puerto Rico must ably address its economic distress and pursue statehood by assuring Congress and the rest of United States that it would be a strong and capable addition, not a chronically needy one.